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November 27, 2007

Enigmatic Engineering - Yuichi Yokoyama's Visionary Architecture - Part 1

The most interesting comic-book of this years SPX was easily Yuichi Yokoyama’s New Engineering. I’ve been obsessing about Yokoyama’s work since I first saw random pages from his books posted online. Now that I actually got my hands New Engineering I’ve been concocting all kinds of strategies for reading and understanding this work. I decided to string together a bunch of notes, observations and theories I’ve accumulated over the last few of weeks into this loose essay. Hopefully this will make some sense to someone out there and they will find it useful in looking at Yuichi Yokoyama’s work. By no means do I think any of this is the definitive way of looking at this work. Picturebox plans on publishing further volumes in the near future, and that work may contradict some of things I say here.

I see the stories in New Engineering fall into two distinct, though interconnected, categories. First, there are the ‘engineering’ stories, where massive architectural projects are realized by gigantic machinery with some aid from the humans (are they human?). The second category contains everything else. These are stories of combat, athletics, warfare, fashion, etc. I’ll first talk about the separate categories. Later I’ll attempt to make some sort of unified statement on their relationship. First up is engineering.

yokoyma - memorial to newton
Spread from Memorial To Newton (read from right to left). Click to enlarge.

I. Enigmatic Engineering

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw pages from New Engineering (the story with that title also shared by the book) was J.G. Ballard’s first novel The Wind from Nowhere. In the book, the surface of the whole planet is rapidly destroyed by a powerful wind, which increases in force with deadlythe wind from nowhere by j.g. ballard regularity. As the planet is literally sandblasted into a cue ball, and civilization is on the brink of annihilation, a mysterious structure is being built – in secret – by a megalomaniacal millionaire Hardoon. The description of the building process has an uncanny resemblance to the Yokoyama depicts the massive feats of engineering in his stories. Here's a taste:

“The hill had gone, obliterated beneath the gigantic jaws of fleets of bulldozers, its matrix scooped out like the pulp of a fruit and carried away on the endless lines of trucks.
Below the sweeping beams of powerful spotlights, their arcs cutting through the whirling dust, huge pylons were rooted into the black earth, then braced back by hundreds of steel hawsers. In the intervals between them vast steel sheets were erected, welded together to form a continuous windshield a hundred feet high.

Even before the first screen was complete the first graders were moving into the sheltered zone behind it, sinking their metal teeth into the bruised earth, leveling out a giant rectangle. Steel forms were shackled into place and scores of black-suited workers moved rapidly like frantic ants, pouring in thousands of gallons of concrete,

As each layer annealed, the forms were unshackles and replaced further up the sloping flanks of the structure. First ten feet, then 20 and 30 feet high, it rose steadily into the dark night.”

detail from meorial to newton by yokoyamaDetail from Memorial To Newton. "Like frantic ants..."

This is only the first of several similar passages in the novel. Ballard totally dispenses with a human perspective. The construction is apprehended from a series of unnatural vantage points that allow us to experience the massiveness of the endeavor. Humans at this scale are “like frantic ants.” Since Ballard doesn’t have any visuals accompanying his prose, we have to imagine the scene.With Yokoyama, we are provided with vague glimpses. Chris Lanier has a great description:

“Yokoyama uses off-panel space with a droll brilliance — machines that cut rock or drill into the earth appear from the edges of the panels, needing no plausible leverage or further apparatus to do their work. The mysterious engine that runs these tools is the invisible will of the artist; the drill bits and jackhammers are really extensions of Yokoyama’s pen. The people in these stories have far less presence than the machines — they come at the end of the narratives to make the finishing touches and voice their approval.”

What distinguishes New Engineering from The Wind from Nowhere is that Ballard eventually tells us what is being built and why: a gigantic steel pyramid designed to withstand the force of the wind. Hardoon, the builder, hopes not only to survive the catastrophe but thrive in it as well. But his motives aren’t entirely clear and sometimes the reader is led to believe the pyramid exist solely so Hardoon can comfortably sit in his steel cage, watch the world turn to dust and listen to the savage howl of the hurricane. Hardoon is a typically Ballardian character who transforms and adapts as best he can to circumstances on the ground (disasters in this case and in his early novels, but in his later work modernity and technology are enough). We encounter these characters in what we recognize as ‘our’ world, but they already belong to another, hidden world, emerging in our midst like one of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. And with the new world come new psycho(patho)logies. This is what’s missing from Yokoyama’s structures. The author consciously avoids depicting the psychology of his world. In the interview that is published in New Engineering Yokoyama says that he wants to create

“ Characters without psychology - I am interested neither in the feelings of people nor in their emotions. I examine only what is to the eye. My characters do not work towards the satisfaction of a collective or individual interest, but to achieve a great goal, to achieve a great mission. ”

new engineering by yokoyama
From New Engineering. Click to Enlarge.

These “great goals” and “great missions” are opaque to us. They seem absurd, strange and bizarre.Again Chris Lanier:

“ Its four stories show the construction of strange monuments and spaces. They describe huge mobilizations of resources for apparently useless ends. One “public work” is a fluorescent-lit room, set into a boulder, positioned in front of an absolutely straight (and also artificially constructed) canal. Another is a glass room, outfitted with chairs and a floor of Astroturf, set under the surface of a man-made lake. These constructions are not only absurd in themselves, the methods of construction are entirely impractical. The third “public work” is an artificial mountain, assembled from boulders that are dropped from airplanes, then coated with glue flowing from a single hose.”

If Yokoyama wants to banish psychology from his pages, we as readers want to put it right back. Because we lack direct knowledge of Yokoyama’s world we proceed archeologically and anthropologically. We compare our world, or the artifacts of our world to the ones depicted in New Engineering in an attempt to excavate the smallest bits of meaning. Chris Lanier finds similarities between New Engineering and the kinetic architecture of superhero comics. James Benedict Brown can’t help but wonder about the ‘why,’ ‘how’ and ‘where’ of the New Engineering projects and compares their depiction to the sterility, purity and disconnection of contemporary mainstream architectural photography.

cenotaph for sir isaac newton by boulee
Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, by Boulle.

Indeed, Yokoyama’s world is close enough to the one we live in to make direct comparisons irresistible. In the “Memorial to Newton” sequence Yokoyama provides us with a clue as to purpose or origin of these enigmatic works. The comic shows crowds of people irresistibly drawn to climb the immense Memorial to Newton structure. This is the only building that has any reality in our world and can be looked at as a key of sorts. It refers to the unbuilt and imaginary Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton by the 18th Century visionary French architect Etienne Louis Boulle. Reading New Engineering comics I couldn’t help but think of the endless variety of massive and visionary architecture that has been built or un-built in the course of human history. Starting with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Egyptian Pyramids, Roman Aqueducts and Temples, the great Gothic Cathedrals, the visionary paper architecture of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, The Crystal Palace, to the massive and often baffling projects of today’s starchitects that are going up all over the world. The list goes on.

pyramids of las vegas and wonders of dubai
The Pyramids of Las Vegas and the wonders of Dubai.

Many of these structures, especially the ancient ones, are as unfamiliar to us as Yokoymas. What do we make of the Great Pyramids? The Easter Island sculptures? After centuries of trying to ‘solve’ the riddle of the Great Pyramid we’re really no closer to understanding the psychology of the builders.

pyramid climbers
Like frantic ants… to the top!

Perhaps the closest relatives of Yokoyama’s context-less plastic mega-structures can be found in places like Dubai (or Las Vegas, etc). Dubai is a veritable laboratory of modern architectural gigantism. Artificial islands and archipelagos in the shape of palm trees or the world itself, rotating skyscrapers, tallest towers in the world, these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Ostensibly we think we understand these structures. They are supposed to be engines of economics growth, steel and concrete representations of financial capital.When we look at them in the larger context of globalization, global warming, war, and peak oil they seem baffling and foreign, but they retain an irresistible and seductive pull. We are drawn not just to what these structures represent, but also to their sheer physicality. In fact climbing great monuments of civilization is one of the great past times of today (and yesterday). People will travel thousands of miles for the privilege of climbing not only the Great Pyramids, but also the pyramids of Las Vegas. What has been the initial impulse of the many people who first encounter the Great Pyramid of Egypt? To climb it!

Part 2 coming soon.

Posted by tomk at November 27, 2007 02:04 AM


Thanks, that's a really interesting article. I just saw Yokoyama's work at the Crossing exhibition, Tokyo. I loved his drawings and bought New Engineering... there were couple of other books which I (stupidly) didn't buy. One is called Travel, the other I think had something to do with gardening(?). I'm back in London now, do you know if these are available anywhere online? I've been looking, but can't find them. aaaarrrggghh!

Posted by: tim at January 6, 2008 04:33 PM

I'm a big fan of Yokoyama and also saw the Roppongi Crossing exhibition in Tokyo. His new book is titled Niwa, or "Garden" in English. I don't think you can find it outside Japan? It has actual speech bubbles on almost every page, as opposed to his previous two books which mainly had Japanese sound effects. But, the speech bubbles mainly tell you what's going on in the images, like "there is a large lake. there is a smaller lake," etc.
Also, Tom K, I bet you might like his paintings! He has a book out of lots of his beautiful acrylic paintings...
he rocks!

Posted by: Jose Luis at February 3, 2008 07:42 AM

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